My Labster Experience: Dr. Bina Rai, Singapore University of Technology and Design

Dr. Bina Rai is a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The programs at SUTD prepare students for careers in engineering or architecture, which tends to attract students that are kinesthetic learners with a focus on design thinking. The faculty including Bina, take great consideration into how to build engaging courses for their unique students. We spoke to her about how she discovered Labster and what problem she was trying to solve.

As it goes in design thinking, Bina started with her problem and she actually had 3 problems she wanted to address:

1. Low Engagement

Bina and her co-instructors typically teach 10 classes with 45-50 students in each class. At times she felt like “I’m actually fighting the distracted classroom”. Her classroom is filled with students with laptops who spend a portion of their class time online shopping, on Google or Facebook.

“I wanted to add something else to the course where they can start to be responsible for their own learning”

2. Student Ownership of Learning

“Chalk and Talk” is a cornerstone of Bina’s teaching and her students often respond about the positive effect of seeing everything written on the board as Bina teaches. However, it is not always the most effective way of teaching and it doesn’t give students ownership of their learning. “I feel that I’m not really contributing to their lifelong learning habits or skills that I would like them to have. And I wanted to add something else to the course where they can start to be responsible for their own learning.”

3. Engaging Non-Majors

Bina’s classes are comprised of first-year students and the curriculum is compulsory. “They’re not going to become biologists or chemists, hence we need to teach each subject a little bit differently. I need to find a strategy to engage them in a way that they would appreciate as kinesthetic learners. They need to be doing things rather than memorizing concepts.”

Discovering virtual simulations

After identifying the 3 problems she was trying to fix, she went to “search the internet like every good student does”. The internet responded with a TED talk by Michael Bodeaker, CTO and co-founder of Labster. The TED talk covers Michael’s vision for how we can revolutionize science education with virtual labs. For Bina, the talk set her on a path to try and solve her problems, “It was a very good talk and it got me thinking about how this can possibly work for me and would this solve my issues? He also recommended a research paper in Nature Biotech.

Reading that paper, I was inspired, mainly because I liked the fact that it was an evidence-based research paper. The control and experimental groups were proper and well thought out and the evaluation method was great as well. I thought, ‘you know, maybe this will work for us.'”

Building a curriculum with virtual labs

Bina applied for a pedagogy innovation grant to bring Labster to her university and conduct her own research, together with a colleague, Dr. Leo Chen Huei. Their grant was approved and Bina set up the control and experimental groups. In the experimental class, 15 students would use Labster with VR headsets and 30 students would use the desktop version of the simulation. Each class consisted of a pre-quiz followed by the lesson and then an introduction to Labster and how to use it. After students had completed the simulation they took a post-quiz and an external survey, all conducted inside their LMS system for ease of use.

For Bina, she found her students very responsive to both the VR and desktop version of the simulations. As she noted, “The students found it easy, they belong to a certain profile that is very tech-savvy. In fact, I think they found it even easier than me to navigate! This generation really enjoys gaming and play and so the engagement was not an issue.”

Increase in learning outcomes

Bina and her colleagues are currently working to publish a paper on their findings from their research and she was kind enough to share some of her findings from their research with us. Overall, the desktop group of students saw a 10% increase in their quiz score compared to the control group of students. While the students that used a VR headset also saw an increase over the control group it was not as significant of an increase. Beyond the increase in quiz scores and knowledge retention Labster also addressed all the issues that Bina was looking to solve.

The course saw an increase in student engagement and motivation. In the post-simulation surveys, many students stated that they appreciated the storylines and realistic detailed laboratories. The survey results also showed “that the majority of students perceived that the simulations improved their learning of DNA-based technologies, students were motivated to complete the simulation and felt more confident at the end.” Bina also shared feedback from some of her students, “They like the fact that they can try all the processes and steps in an experiment, which is unlikely in a real lab. One student mentioned that they would never get this type of experience from reading a textbook.”

“What better way of introducing non-major students to a lab than virtual simulations.”

Finally, Labster was helping engage non-majors. One of the reasons Bina chose Labster was its ability to give non-majors exposure to something they never would have access to. Bina said, “What better way of introducing non-major students to a lab than virtual simulations. The fact that it is safe, controlled, is repeatable, and the students get immediate feedback is great.”

The future of science education

Bina’s research has helped using Labster at the University for the coming years. She’s also hoping to increase the access to Labster at the university as she sees it as a supplement to textbooks. “The students do not seem to be using the recommended textbooks. They’re not reading enough, even though we supply them with hard-copy books in the classroom. I think Labster simulations might be a better way of learning these concepts.”

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